More than 1,200 migrants reached Italy over the weekend after attempting the perilous sea passage from Africa in flimsy vessels, the Italian coast guard said on Monday.
The coast guard said it had rescued most of the migrants at sea after intercepting nearly 20 boats and was still searching for others but it could not confirm reports that up to 10 people had died during the attempted crossing.
This year's first wave of summer heat has brought with it relatively calm waters, prompting impoverished immigrants desperately seeking work in the European Union to set off in rubber rafts and wooden boats. Many do not survive the passage.
Italian media reported that 95 immigrants were saved from a large raft. The survivors told of as many as 10 who had died after a Tunisian fishing boat cut loose the tuna cages it was dragging and that several immigrants were clinging onto.
“We do not have a confirmation of this,” a coast guard spokeswoman said. “These are rumors from people we rescued but we found no bodies.”
Italy's Foreign Ministry said it had not heard of the incident, which reportedly took place in international waters.
In 2008, a picture of 27 Somali immigrants clinging to the tuna nets of an Italian fishing boat came to symbolize a tragic summer in which many boats sank in choppy waters during the crossover, drowning unknown numbers.
Thousands of immigrants seek the southern shores of Italy every summer, when the waters in the Strait of Sicily become calm enough for small boats to make the crossing, usually from Libya or Tunisia.
They come seeking work in the EU and many do not remain in Italy. Those who do, or who are taken into Italian custody, can be sent home.